Ron Wimberly on Vertigo’s ‘Prince of Cats’, Culture, And Working Solo [Interview]
What do Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, Ronald Reagan's '80s, city life, and black culture have in common? As it turns out, kind of a lot, and Ronald Wimberly's graphic novel Prince of Cats is a particularly beautiful illustration of that fact. Wimberly focuses on Tybalt, the titular Prince of Cats, and takes a hard look at what could drive a man to throw away his life when he should be enjoying his youth. The comic is a wild ride, clever, and wonderfully illustrated. I got a chance to speak to Wimberly about the book, the influences that led him to construct it, the vagaries of selling one culture to another, and what Tybalt has in common with the average young black male. Prince of Cats is on sale now. Enjoy the interview, and make sure to check out the brief preview and wallpapers at the end of the post.
ComicsAlliance: Prince of Cats isn't like much of anything else DC Comics/Vertigo publishes, on several different levels. Were you trying to speak directly to a specific culture, or are you hoping to introduce people to something new?
Ron Wimberly: Yes.
CA: What's your history with Romeo & Juliet? Did you read it in school first and fall in love with it, or did you just have a good idea on how to flip it for a new audience and era? How did you feel about the Baz Luhrmann film?
RW: I thought R&J -- can I call it R&J? -- I thought R&J was corny when I read it as a kid. I couldn't get behind how brash those kids were acting. I liked Macbeth because it appealed to my teenage ego. It took years for me to look back and see how wild I was as a kid. To wrap my head around how real the story was. Also, the language is hilarious.
I know there are some people out there who don't dig it, but I think that was one of Luhrmann's best efforts. I didn't like the cocaine/speed style editing, but the high concept is solid. The fact that it stands as one of only two* film adaptations in the cultural lexicon speaks for itself. The other being Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. I won't count West Side Story because I think it does too many things differently.
CA: Prince of Cats has a lot going on, in terms of culture. In the book, there's a mix of styles that range from Japanese farmer to '70s and '80s New York gangs. Characters use Japanese blades, generally, and a few of the more esoteric blades aren't the type you'd see in a traditional version of Romeo & Juliet. How hard was it to marry these disparate cultures, especially black culture and Shakespeare's style?
RW: The style of Prince of Cats is the flower that buds from the pile of cultural manure that feeds my imagination. The mix wasn't too hard; it's culled from my personal experience. Japanese [culture] was always in the mix growing up, and as an adult I really dug to find the source for things.
I also love language and bad jokes/puns, so I've been hooked on Shakespeare from jump street. I devoured the plays as a kid. Then read them all again in college. I did storyboards for a remix of the Tempest for my junior/senior project. What's bugged is I was a Junior/Senior in 2002.. weird!
The first time I saw Shakespeare performed was [Akira Kurosawa's] Ran on a Maryland international public access channel, if that counts... so it wasn't a stretch. I've been on that trajectory from jump. I'm an eighties baby, All of my cartoons were drawn by Japanese and Koreans. Didn't Ghibli do a western fairy tale series on Nickelodeon?
CA: Why did you choose to do the dialogue in a mix of modern and Shakespearean styles, instead of just one or the other? Did it take long to wrap your head around what you needed to do, dialogue-wise?
RW: One of the things I like about Shakespeare's work is how there's a narrative in his application of language as well as in the story of the characters. I chose to mix it up because the mix is what a large part of the process was about. I wanted the language to reflect what I was doing. I wanted Shakespeare's original work to come in like a sample.
I did my best to absorb the language and do something new with it. I did some homework and tried to let it flow freely. It was daunting. There are many Elizabethan rules we don't have in our English. I'm cool with it being something else altogether. The point was for the language to be an expression of the high concept and for it to be fun.
CA: Except for Jared Fletcher's lettering, you handled the creation of the entire book yourself. I want to talk about some of the process of doing that a little, because it's remarkably rare for a mainstream book. Is creating something almost entirely on your own a more pure experience for you? Is it what you want out of comics?
RW: I mostly did it on my own because I didn't see anyone doing what I wanted to do. I tried several times to get Vertigo to approve colorists that I thought could flat my work, but by the time they got back to me many of the artists had moved on. In the end, I got some friends of mine to help me flat (the homie Jorden Haley flatted a big chunk and another homie Joe Cuomo put in a valiant effort). But I had a solid idea of what the color should look like from jump street. ...Also, my favorite artists do it mostly by themselves.
But yeah, I don't think of it as more pure. Maybe more intimate.
CA: Speaking of Fletcher, I thought it was very interesting that the word balloons are rectangular instead of round. Why the rectangles? It's an interesting choice, if only because no one else is doing it these days.
RW: I let Jared do his thing. He asked me about it and what I saw looked great. That was a case of picking the right man for the job and then watching him exceed your expectations. It was nice to have at least one cat I could rely on to do his job and do it well. Jared is that guy.
CA: Art and commerce go hand-in-hand, despite often having contradictory goals. You don't seem like the type of guy who would dumb it down to double your dollars, and Prince of Cats demands a lot out of a reader. How do you strike a balance between art and commerce when creating a book that's such a singular vision like this?
RW: I don't, but I suppose I should start. (shrug)
Nah, f--- that. I'm taking the chance that the audience is sharp and wants to be engaged. If the audience is out there and finds and supports me then I'll eat. If it's not then I'm f---ed anyway cause I'm alone.
Imagine that! (shudder)
CA: What was your writing process like? You're adapting a work, at least in part. Did you pore over Romeo & Juliet to absorb the style, and then just go at it, or was there a different process? Did you go full script before laying out and drawing the comic? What was the hardest part of writing this comic?
RW: I had the characters in my head. I remembered the gist of certain conversations. I started sketching down new conversations and costumes and ephemera. [Former Vertigo editor] Jonathan Vankin asked me some great questions that helped a lot.
I don't know exactly how it happens, this is my first real go at it. Ask me again the third time.
CA: You matched Shakespeare's ear for dirty jokes and cleverness, which I thought was pretty great. It gives the book a very wry tone at times, like a soft smile in answer to a question. Did you have to spend a lot of time getting the humor and wordplay just right when creating the story?
RW: I didn't spend too much time trying to get it right. I grew up with a lot of jokers and sharp-wits. Years of Hip Hop also prepared me for that.
I also love bad jokes, dirty jokes, and tongue-in-cheek [jokes]. I got into it so much that I was texting bawdy sonnets to a friend of mine while she worked night shifts at Bar Riese in Park Slope. ...Moira Meltzer Cohen, now she's a civil lawyer bailing out occupiers. She also proofread my first draft.
CA: You wrote, drew, and colored Prince of Cats. I've seen a color process image on your Prince of Cats tumblr, with the pure colors, no lines. Where'd the palette for Prince of Cats come from? The palette ranges from realistic to moodily lit. Was it difficult to figure out exactly how Prince of Cats should look, color-wise?
RW: That was a conflict for me. I wanted to capture the subtle lighting as well as a bit of that Suzuki Seijun Technicolor style. I knew it would be difficult, that's why I ended up doing it myself. It was a problem I had to solve page by page.
CA: I'm obsessed with the colors in this one sequence near the beginning of Act 4, the fight in the club. "Blood on the dance floor." Cool blues and purples give way to lurid reds and oranges and then the blues come back. Color's just another tool in the artists arsenal -- what effect did directly handling the colors have on your storytelling? Did it give you more freedom to play with new or different storytelling techniques?
RW: That scene was written around colour. I remembered a documentary about an old disco in the Bronx that had something about cops coming and the DJ putting on blue light. I thought it'd be interesting if the kids had integrated violence into their lives so much that they had protocol for disco duels.
I certainly felt like it gave me more freedom. Karen [Berger] told me I could use colour. I was hyped. It made the process more integrated.
CA: What're your tools, when it comes to art? Are you drawing on a tablet or paper? How'd you ink the book?
RW: I did this book all over the world... actually, mostly in Brooklyn and Tokio. I broke the whole thing down in pencil then scanned it and printed the blue line out on boards and inked those boards. I use fude brush pens and microns. I need to have something I can throw in the bag and move with.
CA: I think it's really, really interesting that you've been running a Prince of Cats sketch tumblr, with both behind-the-scenes and marketing stuff. You post a lot of songs, music videos, posters, and interviews. You've covered jidaigeki, punk music, KRS-1, and even more besides. Is this your research dump, or is it more of a way to show the primal sources of some of the ideas in Prince of Cats? Do you look at it as an educational resource or something else?
RW: The latter is true...primal sources. It can be educational, sure. It's a place for readers to check out if they are curious what type of things that are in my head that got me to the place where I'd make something like PoC. Really it's me just having fun and reaching out. That tumblr is just another creation of mine... and it's free!
CA: Let's talk culture, commerce, identity, and commodity culture for a bit here, because I think you're in an interesting position to discuss it. Prince of Cats recreates, or maybe translates, a certain point in time. It's Reagan's '80s, at least in part, viewed through a Shakespearean lens. What did the '80s mean to you? What were your '80s like?
RW: I mostly spent the eighties in Washington DC. I spent most of my childhood in a house on MLK Ave. in South East DC with my Great Grandmother, Grandmother, 3 uncles, 2 aunts, and 2-5 cousins. I still remember those days as some of the best years of my life. I got to view a lot of wild things through the lens of a child. I didn't see all of the conflict and the hardships. I was never hungry or very frightened. Looking back from where I've arrived though, it's pretty bugged.
I have all of the little anecdotes that brothers have or pretend to have. I lived that.
While I mythologize plenty, there are some strong threads from the story that connect to my own childhood and my family. I'm careful to keep the "art" in my "cartooning". It is personal. The art is connecting where I am to where I was and packaging some of the things I've observed in between.
CA: Who is Ron Wimberly? I've seen you describe yourself as an artist -- what does being an artist mean to you? Is artist the first word you'd go to in order to describe yourself to someone else?
RW: Those are big questions! I'm answering them with my labour. The first word I'd like used to describe me is "human being" If I don't achieve that first I don't know if I can ever be an "artist".
CA: The world of Prince of Cats is familiar to me, even though I spent my '80s in small town Georgia and too young to get into real trouble. How much are you pulling from real life experiences and how much of Prince of Cats is pure fiction?
RW: I certainly didn't get into any real trouble either. I watched others get into trouble. Also I think some of the trouble others got into in the streets assured that I was left alone.
There's plenty of fiction in Prince of Cats. The fiction is the iconography. The iconography is the medium, the truth is the pigment.
The swords and the pill jacket are cartooning. The art is the scene when Tybalt gets Petruchio's shoes. I pulled that from my own experience. Elements of the relationship Petruchio has with Gregory are pulled from my relationship with my cousin Malachi who really first inspired me to draw.
CA: The market for mainstream comics leans white and male. Do you feel like you're packaging up who you are, your shared cultural identity and history, for an audience who might not be receptive, and may even be actively hostile, to your stories?
RW: Not really. Come on, from George (RIP) and Weezy to J and Yeezy, white boys love black culture. I'm not really worried too much about packaging myself for white boys. They get me. And if they don't, f---'m.
I'm not worried about what is perceived as mainstream comics either. The kids I'm talking to aren't so ignorant to think that "race" doesn't matter, but they're not as square about the role the myth of race plays or about navigating real boundaries that that myth has created. And I personally don't believe we've found the mainstream market for comics yet. Not for this generation.
CA: It seems like almost everything in real life can be bought and sold. Occupy Wall Street-branded t-shirts, for example, or rap music selling a particular vision of black culture to a non-black audience. Where's the line for you? Is there a difference between representing your culture, or repping your culture, and exploiting it?
RW: Yeah. I am not trying to rep my culture as much as be honest... witness and tell stories.
...but on that subject, it's not even that bugged when a particular vision of black culture is sold to a non-black audience, it's bugged when non-black notions of black culture are sold to a black audience via black artists. I've had them try to pull that one on me before. There are so many different stories. People just need to be real and tell their stories.
CA: You're an artist -- how do you feel about what happens when your art leaves your hands? Is there a difficulty in seeing people interpret, comment on, and remix your work, or do you enjoy the chaos that comes out of creation?
RW: F--- it. As long as I can pay bills. Just don't ask for my permission. Everybody's stealing. It's bugged when the thieves lawyer up, tho, right? ...That said, let it at least come out first. I don't need people trying to censor or interpret it before it even comes out.
CA: Tybalt, like the world of Prince of Cats, feels so familiar. His suicidal rush toward manhood and respect reminds me of... honestly, almost every black man that I've known, myself included. You see his love for his family, his rage for his enemies, and everything else. Why did you decide to tell the story from Tybalt's point of view? What did you want to illustrate about him, or us, as a people, culture, or country?
RW: Wow, man. I'm not going to talk about that. I want people to work that out. Duchamp said something about art meeting the viewer half way... I put it out there... I'm gonna let the viewers meet it halfway. I don't want to take anything from them.
I can say, I saw in Shakespeare's Tybalt the same connection you saw in my version... That's a connection I had with Shakespeare's interpretation that lead me to do what I've done.
CA: Petruchio positively haunts the book, as he's mostly unseen but felt on every page. I get the feeling that he represents the triumph of art over the horrors of life, an alternate path that Tybalt never took, or maybe could never take. Petruchio as a genius graffiti artist is fascinating -- can you talk a little about where you were coming from when creating him?
RW: Well. Again, I'm a bit cautious to say too much about the character, but it's an interesting take on him that you have. I definitely built him out of archetypes, friends, and family.
I'll say that I grew up around many brilliant young people. There are many Petruchios out there. I'm pleased he had such an effect on you. I was deliberate about his presence, but I wasn't sure it would come through.
CA: You introduce and close out the book with a couple of personal notes, as a way to both set up expectations and provide context for what came before. This lends the book a personal feel that I wasn't expecting. What were your motivations for doing so? Was it just to provide context for what was coming and what just passed?
RW: I didn't realize the beginning was so personal. In a way, the entire thing is personal. Like I said, I think this sort of process makes a comic a bit more intimate. The bit at the end is pretty personal. I wouldn't mind if people skipped it altogether.
CA: I get the feeling that you incorporated a lot of your influences while creating Prince of Cats. The pill jacket is an obvious reference, but even Sampson and Gregory remind me of Kai and Yamagata from Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira. Do you have any favorite homages that you slipped into Prince of Cats? What should we look out for when rereading the book, in terms of hidden information?
RW: Man, I'm not gonna spoil that discovery for the audience....but you're on it though! Well done! They're samples. Usually they're contextual. It's a type of shorthand. I'm not just winking at the audience... not in most cases.
CA: What's your personal soundtrack to Prince of Cats? Either what you listened to while you were drawing it, or just what the book sounds like to you.
RW: Man. It's the sound of New York in the eighties. Hip Hop, Post Punk and No Wave. Fearless Four's "Rocking It," ESG, James Chance, Kid Creole, Richard Hell, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Bambatta, Grand Master Flash and the the Furious Five... the message, Mantronix, Ramellzee, The real Roxanne... man, the tumblr is a great place to dig into that.